How Can Moms Set Boundaries Without Feeling Guilty? 

Six strategies to move past the dreaded mom-guilt

“…I realized I was a puppet. I tried to not hurt (others) feelings, but often mine were hurt…”

“… I’m a people pleaser by nature and I don’t want to disappoint. I’m better at meeting outer expectations versus inner.”

Moms already suffer from external pressure. Yet, we compound it, by poisoning our choices with self-doubt. Why do we feel so guilty about our decisions? Nearly 200 Moms responded to the Personal Boundaries survey and 12% said, guilt associated with trying to please or meet other people’s expectations, is what makes it hard to set healthy boundaries. As one surveyed Mom shared, “I struggle with this. I often do what pleases others, then feel resentful.”

I asked Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a Psychologist, Professor, Author, Supermom and Jedi-boundary-setter, about how we can conquer the emotional conflicts that surface when setting limits. She did not hold back with her candid and thoughtful observations!

Stare Down Resentment

Many of Ramani’s patients are parents. She said, “People feel guilty about putting resentment and kids in the same sentence.” So true! The Mom-role is among the most time-starved yet expectation-rich in our society. Inevitably we try to honor these conflicting obligations to others. Ramani said, “This righteous dialogue around motherhood keeps women down and alienates them.” Well said! She added, “We don’t have safe spaces.”

Moms need to feel safe…especially when opening up about what’s hard. Ramani, like most working Moms, has had to reconcile the impact of professional tradeoffs. She said, “My career did not quite go the way I had hoped.” A sentiment echoed by many of the Moms surveyed. “When I had children, I lost the nimbleness required to move forward in many career paths, including academia. It was devastating at times. I could not always reach for every opportunity I hoped for… while watching colleagues move through the ranks much more seamlessly,” She explained.   

Resist Our Culture of Comparison

“I used to relax my boundaries for work and volunteer groups. However, I’ve recognized the stress it puts on me and on my family. That has caused me to enforce my boundaries better.” Shared one surveyed Mom. The societal expectations of mothers make it hard to run your own race. Even if you’re not inclined to compare yourself, inevitably, someone else will. However, your priorities, capacity and resources, will always differ from someone else’s. Ramani shared that it was “lonely and isolating” at times as a single Mom raising kids in Los Angeles. She said, “Some of my children’s friends are in celebrity or very wealthy families. My kids love their houses that are beautiful and professionally maintained.” She had to explain to them she couldn’t always prioritize what other parents might.

Self-Care Is Not Easy…Nor is it One-Size-Fits-All

Although self-care is more important than ever, we have less opportunity for it. “Mothers’ time to themselves and time with adults both dropped by about 7 hours per week from 1975 to 2000. Employed mothers’ drops in pure leisure were even steeper: They had 9 hours of pure leisure.” Brigid Schulte, shared the worrying trend, in her book, Overwhelmed: How to Work Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Ramani warned, to some, it can feel like yet another unattainable demand. “If one more person talks about self-care… it’s one more thing to do!” She said. Then added, “…The thing that’s good for them can feel like one more burden.” Unfortunately, some Moms shared turning to self-care only when they’ve reached emotional or physical limits. One surveyed Mom said, “(I set boundaries) when I’m feeling completely drained…  like I can’t breathe without taking time for myself!” Ramani said women can feel judged if they take time for themselves and for HOW they use it. She said, “Moms think, how do I secretly take care of myself? Self-care becomes like a lover!” She was right. She added that many, “…have to be comfortable with stolen moments.”

Push. Back.

Surveyed Moms consistently shared stories of ‘learning’ to set boundaries. Some, quickly respond to unfair treatment, one Mom shared, she sets boundaries, “…(When) they think I’m selfish.” For another surveyed Mom, boundaries become a self-protective response to stimuli, “(I set boundaries) when I get fed up, or can’t take it anymore. My first instinct is to please others and it is only when my needs and wishes are under threat in a serious way that I push back.” Ramani said we can’t underestimate the power of how we were raised and the fear of conflict. She said, “It’s a huge phase shift to piss people off. That’s undoing 45 years of programming!” I laughed. She added, within families, “…Pissing people off doesn’t just end, it might go on and on.” Sigh!

Respect Your Needs Right Now. One Size Can’t Fit All

Over one third of surveyed Moms (35%) cited the context, situation or environment they faced, as influential to boundary setting ease. Mom-life is dynamic and the ‘bar’ moves as our needs change. Ramani wisely expressed how different needs are based on individual situations. “…Moms with babies or toddlers, versus adolescents or high schoolers, are having different conversations. Single moms are having different conversations than partnered moms.” Absolutely. She stressed flexibility when trying to find the right answers. She said, “The solutions are too varied.”

Get Comfortable With the Discomfort

Although the overwhelming majority of Moms expressed difficulty setting boundaries under particular circumstances – state of mind, relationship to the person and/or the context – there are Moms figuring out what works. One surveyed Mom shared, “…I eat what works for me, exercise religiously and guard my personal time without apology.” Amen! Another expressed, “…If work is taking over my life and not letting me sleep, I change gears and stop compromising.”Another Mom has this incredibly healthy perspective, “…Most of the time. I can’t be responsible for other people’s happiness. I find that living authentically allows me to live my life more fully. People tend to respect it and understand the positive spirit in which my boundaries are drawn.” Why yes!  Ramani also noted to approach change with a flexible mindset. She said, “Sometimes the solution that works for you, may not necessarily work for other people, it’s a chronic balancing act and series of corrections, but we cannot be all things to all people.” Beautiful!


Thank you to all of the Moms who participated in the survey and special thanks to the talented Dr. Ramani Durvasula for her expertise.

About Dr. Ramani,

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks, CA and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, where she was named Outstanding Professor in 2012. She is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

She is the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist. She is also the author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life, as well as the author of numerous peer reviewed journal articles, book chapters and conference papers.

Dr. Ramani received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of Connecticut, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.

She brings a wealth of expertise in relationships, sexuality, health and wellness. Dr. Ramani was the co-host of Oxygen’s series My Shopping Addiction, and has also been featured on series on Bravo, the Lifetime Movie Network, National Geographic, the History Channel, Discovery Science, and Investigation Discovery as well as in documentary films on health. She has been a featured commentator on nearly every major television network, as well as radio, print, and internet media.

Dr. Ramani is also involved in national governance in the field of psychology and has served as the chair of the Committee on Socioeconomic Status at the American Psychological Association and is presently a member of the Advisory Board of the Minority Fellowship Program of the American Psychological Association.

Enjoy Ramani’s TEDx Talk and follow her great adventures on her website, Twitter, FacebookInstagram and  YouTube.

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